As Metro driver Dewayne Thomas shuttles his bus around the city, stuffed monkeys perched on the dashboard bear silent witness to harsh words between passengers, to the sometimes rocky passage of adolescents into adulthood and to the older bodies that are failing their owners. Thomas, a warm-eyed, handsome man, says of his monkeys, “They make it more friendly when you ride the bus.
"It creates camaraderie. ‘What’s up with those monkeys?’ I use one of my lines, ‘It’s like a jungle out there.’ I get compliments on 'em every day.”
A few days after a gunman wounded bus driver Deloy Depuis in front of Benaroya Hall during the morning commute, Thomas notes, “These are scary days. These are the kind of days that you don’t look forward to coming to work. ” The shooting, which left Dupuis with cheek and arm injuries, “makes other operators on the road feel not well.
“There’s people in the downtown corridor who are not taking their medication who are armed and dangerous,” adds Thomas, who at 6'4" would tower over most people. He recalls dealing with a difficult passenger. “There was a guy on the bus who was threatening to kill all the white people with a baseball bat. I called the police to come pick him up.”
Thomas says he urges riders not to engage anyone who is bothering them. “You may be talking to a psychotic person. You might be putting people in danger. Don’t argue with them. They may be off their meds and ready to snap Tell me, and I’ll contact the proper authorities. You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
This is the second driver shooting in recent years, although there have been other assaults. Driver Mark McLaughlin was shot and killed in 1998 as he maneuvered his coach along the Aurora Bridge. Although the gunman attempted to wrestle the steering wheel away from him, the mortally wounded McLaughlin managed to hold onto it long enough so that the vehicle didn’t plunge off the steepest part of the embankment and kill all the passengers, Thomas recalls. As it was, McLaughlin and another rider died in the crash and a couple dozen passengers were injured.
Luckily, such violent episodes are not a daily occurrence. On a spring morning, Thomas’ stuffed menagerie seems to calm riders and put them in a good mood, as he shuttles his No. 4 bus between Harborview and Swedish medical centers. (He currently drives the Nos. 60 and 125 routes.)
During that shift, a rider whose facial features cluster below a silver fringe of hair, minces forward with a cane, his jeans and shoelaces trailing behind. He bids adieu at Swedish, squeaking to Thomas, “Take care of your wonderful animals.” A library-bound guy with a salt-and-pepper beard and stocking cap urges, “Have fun with all your friends there.”
“When I started driving, I noticed how hostile it was,” says their guardian, who was once punched by a female passenger whom he had asked to stop drinking. The 19-year veteran had started his career on the night shift, when many transients ride. ”I decided to bring in two or three monkeys. It’s like if you paint a room pink, it starts to change the mood. People liked them and started giving them to me and they’ve been giving me monkeys to this day.
"I figure you can’t argue with a bus driver with all those monkeys. It’s like arguing in front of your kids.”
That first monkey was a Curious George-like creation won at a carnival in Germany, where he was stationed as an Army infantryman in the early 1980s. Bleached beige by the sun, the simian’s chin rests atop the bus radio’s receiver. Other species include a tyrannosaurus rex that rears up next to George. “I got that from a mother of two when I was driving the route in Madrona.” Mornings, she’d take her kids to school and, “I was the only driver who would wait for her. You know how two kids can make you late.” Some of the monkeys were gifts from his younger son, a Navy Master-at-Arms stationed in Japan—including the latest one tattooed with, “No. 1 Dad.” A sock monkey, with a red pompom crowning its cap, smiles down at commuters. “A passenger noticed I didn’t have one, so she bought it for me.”
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